Canadian officials have revealed that panicked White House staffers called Canada’s Prime Minister’s office last month pleading for Justin Trudeau to stop President Trump from signing an executive order ending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The bizarre diplomatic strategy — for the President’s staff to use a foreign leader to influence their own boss — seems to have worked. Despite calling NAFTA “the worst deal ever” and refusing to dismiss widespread reports last month that he would soon take unilateral action to end the agreement, Trump reversed course immediately following phone calls with Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
In a news conference the following day, the President had this to say:
“I was going to terminate NAFTA as of two or three days from now. The President of Mexico, who I have a very very good relationship, called me. And also, the Prime Minister of Canada who I have a very good relationship, and I like both of these gentlemen very much. They called me. And they said, rather than terminating NAFTA, could you please renegotiate? I like both of them very much, I respect their countries very much, the relationship is very special. And I said, I will hold on the termination — let’s see if we can make it a fair deal because NAFTA’s been a horrible deal for the United States.”
“You never know how much of it is theatre, but it didn’t feel that way,” a senior Canadian diplomat said. “Maybe they’re just learning how to be a government. At least they were open to the conversation, and that stopped them doing something rash and destructive.”
While officials successfully used the roundabout strategy to achieve their immediate goal this time, the episode exposes major red flags going forward. These back door conversations paint a picture of a White House staff that considers it more effective to consult a foreign leader than their own boss; one where Trump’s staff is willing to risk their careers to go over his head to influence him.
This time, Trump’s aides needed outside help for negotiations with one (or two) of America’s closest allies. But Trump’s rash impulses will not always be relegated to heads of state who are as friendly as Trudeau, and next time if the President refuses to listen to reason, his staff — and the American people — will find themselves in a much more precarious situation.
Sheila Norton is a writer with ten years of Capitol Hill experience. Subscribe to the OD Action email to get all the hottest news delivered right to your inbox every day at www.odaction.com